Big Bend National Park
Stars shine big and bright over this National Park gem
Big Bend National Park in far West Texas is one of the least visited large national parks in the lower 48 states. Yet this 1,252-square-mile park (larger than the state of Rhode Island) is like no other park.
The park is formed by a "big bend" in the Rio Grande River, whose 245-mile border with Mexico in this area is administered by the National Park Service. Night skies that sparkle with stars and rivers carve temple-like canyons in ancient limestone. More than 1,200 species of plants, more than 450 species of birds, 56 species of reptiles and 75 species of mammals call this solitary mountain range surrounded by weather-beaten desert their home. The diversity of species is unsurpassed in the United States.
Archaeologists have discovered artifacts estimated to be 9,000 years old, and historic buildings and landscapes offer graphic illustrations of life along the international border in the 19th century.
The weather in Big Bend can be brutal. Dry and hot late spring and summer days often exceed 100°F in the lower elevations. Winters are normally mild throughout the park, but sub-freezing temperatures occasionally occur.
While the isolation of Big Bend National Park is a draw for many visitors, it also means your trip must be well prepared and carefully planned. Big Bend National Park is located a considerable distance from cities and transportation hubs.
Several highways lead to the park: TX 118 from Alpine to Study Butte or FM 170 from Presidio to Study Butte (then 26 miles east to park headquarters) or U.S. 90 or U.S. 385 to Marathon (then 70 miles south to park headquarters).
Distances betwewen towns and services are considerable. Be sure you have plenty of gas, oil, food, and water for your trip. The park has four camp stores, but supply and selection can be limited. There are also small stores in the communities outside the park. The last major shopping areas (grocery and hardware stores) are Alpine, Fort Stockton and Del Rio.
There are just five paved roads inside the park.
Visitation is lowest in August and September. Big Bend's busy season is generally November through April and the park is often full to capacity for six weeks each year: Thanksgiving week, Christmas holiday season and spring break (middle weeks of March). Reservations for camping and lodging are recommended.
Visitors are welcome to bring and use horses in the park.
Hiking and Backpacking
Big Bend's hiking and backpacking trails are a major attraction. Notable among these are the Chimneys Trail, which visits a rock formation in the desert; the Marufo Vega trail, a loop trail that passes through scenic canyons on the way to and from the Rio Grande; and the Outer Mountain Loop trail in the Chisos, which begins in the Chisos Basin, climbs into the high mountains, descends into the desert along the Dodson Trail, and then returns to the Chisos Basin, completing a 30 mile loop.
There are professional backpacking guide services that provide trips in the park. Regardless of your hiking plans, make sure you bring lots of water to avoid dehydration.
Rafting, canoeing and kayaking through the canyons of the Rio Grande can be an unforgettable experience, as you go through miles of canyons up to 1,500 feet deep. There are many possibilities including half-day floats or multi-day excursions.
Along the more open areas of the Rio Grande, you may see local people fishing, farming, and engaging in other traditional activities. These quiet stretches of the river offer expansive views of the buttes, mesas and mountains both in the United States and in Mexico. Far fewer people float the water between the canyons.
The canyons of the Rio Grande are the most popular float trips. A number of guidebooks are available to help you decide and prepare for your trip.
Three options are available if you desire to make a river trip: you can bring your own equipment, rent equipment or hire a guide service that will provide all permits, food, equipment and shuttles.
There is often concern about being close to an international border, but incidents between Big Bend visitors and Mexican nationals are exceptionally rare.
The middle of the deepest channel of the Rio Grande is the international boundary. Over the course of your trip, you may cross this boundary several times. Currently, passports are not required. However, landing on the Mexican bank of the river is considered an illegal crossing and could result in fines and jail time. Limited exceptions are made when safety is a consideration: to bail/repack a boat, scout rapids or seek shade when overheating.
Coming Out at Night
Birders flock to Big Bend, as it is home to more than 450 species of birds. Many species stop in the park during their migrations.
Because of the intense daytime temperatures, most of the animals are not visible in the day, particularly in the desert. The park comes alive at night, with many of the animals foraging for food. About 150 cougar sightings are reported each year. Other animals that inhabit the park include the black-tailed jackrabbit, kangaroo rats, the greater roadrunner, golden eagles, collared peccary, coyotes and Mexican black bears. Always keep a safe distance when photographing animals.
Dark Nights at Big Bend
In 2012, the International Dark-Sky Association named Big Bend an "International Dark Sky Park," as it is one of only 10 places on the planet certified for dark sky stargazing. In addition, the association recognized the park as having the darkest measured skies in the lower 48 United States.
Short-term, temporary closures, such as road closures due to flooding, river levels and other information about current park conditions are listed on the Big Bend Daily Report, an informative site found at www.nps.gov/bibe/daily_report.htm.
For More Information:
Big Bend National Park
Texas State Travel Guide